Researchers Share First Findings on Burners’ Transformative Experiences

By Daniel Yudkin

Many people report having a transformative experience in Black Rock City. They see Burning Man events as something truly out of the ordinary and often find it impossible to describe Black Rock City and what happens there.

We — a team of psychologists, neuroscientists, and anthropologists working in collaboration with the Black Rock City Census — have embarked on a research project to better understand the personal transformations people undergo in Black Rock City. Funded by the Templeton Foundation — a granting agency devoted to exploring the intersection of science and spirituality — we hope to shed light on what happens when people experience profound changes in their lives.

In 2015, we asked some basic questions in the online BRC Census survey about the transformations participants went through on the playa. As you can see in the graph below, almost 20% of people said they “absolutely” had a transformative experience at Burning Man, and more than 75% of people said they had an at least “somewhat” transformative experience.


Furthermore, over 85% of people said the change they experienced was “still persisting” during the days and weeks after leaving the playa when the online Census was active. (The Census closed in mid-October, six weeks after the event.)


People use the term “transformation” to describe a broad range of changes from temporary states of mind to more lasting changes in behavior or identity. Respondents gave us some clues about the nature of their transformations. Most commonly, people felt different in their mind, and that they could be themselves or explore a new part of themselves. Other common types of transformation included feeling more socially connected to something larger than themselves, and perceiving people or things differently.


We are still in the beginning stages of our research project. We hope to collect much more data over the next few months to get a clearer picture of how Burning Man transforms people. Stay tuned to the Jackrabbit Speaks email newsletter—there will be links to ways to participate in our research and learn more about our project. And watch out for us on the playa this year, where we’ll be continuing to ask people about their transformative experiences while they are occurring. With your help, we can find out what makes Burning Man such a  powerful experience.

The Researchers

Molly Crockett is an Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford studying the psychology and neurobiology of altruism and morality. Find out more at her lab website.

S. Megan Heller (playa name: Countess) is a psychological anthropologist studying adult play and transformation at Burning Man, and particularly the role of play in healthy adult development and mental well being. She is a researcher working at the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society. Find out more at her website.

Kateri McRae (playa name: Variance) is an affective scientist who is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Denver. She studies emotion regulation and other emotion cognition interactions using self-report, psychophysiology and functional neuroimaging. Find out more at her lab website.

Daniel Yudkin is a doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at New York University and a jazz musician. He is fascinated by all topics related to human behavior, including how people compare themselves to others, explore new spaces, and make moral decisions. Find out more at his website.

Annayah Prosser is the Lab Manager for the Crockett Lab at the University of Oxford, and a third year undergraduate student studying Psychology at the University of Bath.

Alek Chakroff is an experimental psychologist studying moral judgment and behavior using methods from social psychology, behavioral economics, and cognitive neuroscience. See more at his research website.

Lead image: Tower of Transformation by Joe Arnold (Photo by Scott London)

About the author: Census Team

Census Team

The Census Lab is a volunteer team of information geeks, academic researchers, students, and general data nerds who have surveyed Black Rock City (BRC) residents since 2002.

11 Comments on “Researchers Share First Findings on Burners’ Transformative Experiences

  • Ashley says:

    I’m not sure if they are wanting to follow first time burners or not, but I’ll be going thus fall. If so, I’m open to that!

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  • Giulio Giandoso says:

    I’ve never been to BRC but Nowhere changed me a lot and helped me in my path of self-development. Feel free to contact me if there’s anything you would like to hear.


    Giulio (P.N: Don Julio de la Playa)

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  • Greg Toewa says:

    Burning man is special for sure but it’s more of a city than a festival. I believe transformation are possible via many mechanisms but in my experience it happened first at festivals. Anywhere people become more open with each other, let their guards down and practice altruism and empathy is a good place for the making of a transformative experience.

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  • Robin Yule says:

    I have already experienced a great transformation. I cheated death and pulled myself away from a muscle destroying disease designed to leave me unmovable. Out of my wheelchair and bed, off all meds and I am now, 18 months later, a strong warrior who lifts weight bi-daily and loves everything, everyone and life immensely! I want to “do” burning man to be positive I’ve completed my transformation before I move to the next level in life: leading others in finding their own truth and completeness. I will be a virgin at BM and bringing items for the temple burning.

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  • Bronwyn Smit says:

    At 57 I will be experiencing my first Burning Man this year…. cant wait

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  • Blues Bob says:

    Recently completed my Graduate Thesis in Sociology at California State University, Fullerton. I’ve been to Burning Man five times, but skipped last year to complete the thesis. I’ll be back on the playa this year.

    For fun, I wrote several papers and gave lectures to various sociology classes over the years. The department was sure that I was going to do my thesis on Burning Man, but I opted not to. But it’s still a great place to observe human behavior in a wild social setting. I look forward to reading others research regarding the denizens of Black Rock City.

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    • Blues Bob says:

      That should have said “…I wrote several papers and gave lectures to various sociology classes over the years on the topic of Burning Man.”

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